Private transit services in Ontario: Some thoughts

As a shameless nerd, I spend a completely absurd amount of time perusing news articles about transit in Ontario communities. Recently, I came across this recent piece in the Owen Sound Sun Times and my first thought….great! More transit for a tourist area where beautiful natural areas like Sauble Beach or Tobermory are swamped with obscene amounts of parking. If we can have even a basic bus service in someplace like the Bruce Peninsula, maybe the asphalt oceans can be reduced a little bit, at least for local trips.

However, in thinking about this transit service I remembered another private initiative from a few years back: Metis Transit. If you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you might have heard of this venture by former Bolton resident (and Metis Nation member) Darren Parbery. His transit service, using old school buses and two routes, ran briefly in 2006 in Bolton and outlying Caledon communities. The Town of Caledon operates no transit service and as the population is growing in those communities north of Brampton and in Bolton; so Parberry clearly felt he had a market to support his service. Unfortunately, Metis Transit closed its doors only a few months later amid accusations from Parberry that even limited support from the Town (such as a letter of support or help marking bus stops) was not forthcoming.

Parberry and Metis Transit resurfaced almost 7 years later, with a proposal to run a service in Peterborough County. Similar to the situation in Caledon, the county government did not offer the support asked for in the form of a letter of support. Although it appears that there is nothing legally stopping the company from running scheduled buses on public roads, the county reportedly did not want to assume any responsibility for the service, including any future subsidies. (although Parberry did not ask for any when presenting to the county)

Although the Metis Transit website still exists, promising a network of rural routes in Peterborough County, as of writing time, no such transit service exists. I think the saga of Metis Transit is a cautionary tale for other businesses hoping to run rural transit in this province. While we at this blog firmly believe that there is a role for transit to play in many parts of this province beyond just downtown Toronto, the deck remains stacked against these well meaning private operators.

Snow bus

Firstly, there is a big difference between the established players in the private transit business, multinational corporations such as Keolis or Veolia, and small local players trying to get a few buses going in rural Ontario. The large corporations often operate existing transit systems as contractors, such as the case with YRT/Viva. Small local players, in contrast, are trying to set up a whole transit system with no public support. This has always been very interesting to me, as many opponents of transit, ranging from politicians to posters on comment boards, argue that transit should not exist, except where it can make money. Obviously, they do not seem to think that highway projects should be held to the same rigorous free market standard. Even more mystifying is the attitude towards offering public support to the private transit operators, who one would think might be praised for being entrepreneurs and offered, if not a direct subsidy, then infrastructure support, such as bus stop signs. As the experience of Metis Transit shows, this is often not forthcoming from local governments.

For the founders of the Bruce transit service, a similar situation is developing with Owen Sound. The company hopes to use the transit terminal as a terminus point for one of the routes and even is offering to run late night service after city buses stop running at 6 pm. So far, the city has not allowed any use of their bus stops or terminals to the operators. To be fair, the Owen Sound city manager has said Bruce Transit might get approval to do so if they make a formal application, which has not been submitted and the city has expressed support for the regional services operated by Bruce transit.

Interestingly, to me, this seems like a way the Bruce service may be able to succeed where Metis Transit failed. Without some form of partnership with the public sector, it is very difficult for any transit service in North America to succeed. Even the large players still rely on contracts with different levels of government in order to maintain their services; as long as competition with automobiles remains subsidized. Metis Transit did not even receive any help from the Caledon local government, even with setting up bus stops and other infrastructure. With municipally maintained wide roads and ample free parking provided by businesses in a town rapidly becoming a commuter suburb of Toronto, how could a private transit service ever compete? This blog hasn’t taken a position on private vs. public transit and with good reason, we want to keep an open mind and in all honesty, both Metis and Bruce transit are very inspiring. The depressing reality is that any such company will need to seek a public sector partner in order to keep operating unless Shaun or I become Premier anytime soon!

Will we see more of local private transit initiatives in rural Ontario? The proliferation of “airbus” services, shuttling residents from the southwestern part of the province to Pearson Airport, answers this question. As you can see from our map, they’re scheduled services that, in theory, one can use to travel between communities, not just to the airport. Does this count as something like Bruce Transit? I’d say yes. Does this also justify another post? I’d also say yes. So stay tuned, dear reader, for further musings on the little buses that could.

Bruce transit

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2 thoughts on “Private transit services in Ontario: Some thoughts

  1. Vincent said “…unless Shaun or I become Premier anytime soon!”

    I wasn’t planning on running in 2018…not sure about you. 😉

    Your post makes me expand the way I think of “public vs private.” Should the public be subsidizing private companies? I usually think that we should not. Then again, what does it mean for Megabus and Greyhound to be using municipally-owned terminals in most cities? This is a form of support, and I think it is a good one.

    In most cases, I suspect that private operators are not doing anything that the public sector could not do…except maybe show initiative. And it appears from your post that this is precisely the concern of many municipal authorities: what happens when it is proven (as it always is) that transit is useful but not “profitable”? At very least, municipalities could provide some support to give the private operators a chance to test the market.

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    1. Agreed! I should have elaborated in the post but since many small transit systems in Ontario already are contracted to private operators, why not expand this to include those that are showing initiative in servicing new areas. They could still be run under some form of “Bruce County Transit” branding…..I’d rather the systems be entirely public but as you know, politics is the art of the possible sometimes….

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